The World in Mentalists this week featured a blog about first experiences (or first contact!) seeking help for a mental health problem.
Reading that blog which you can find here i suddenly found myself transported back almost ten years ago now to my own first time. The first time i admitted that i needed help and couldn’t do it on my own any more.
This first experience is, for many, a huge deal. It is the first time they have ever admitted it and let their carefully crafted mask fall and from personal experience it feels like a confessional.
Forgive me doctor but something is really not right in my head.
The first time i ever admitted out loud that something was not all right was definitely a shatter point in my existence. My memories of it are vivid even now and i look back and have so many things i wish i could say to that scared girl.
I was fourteen when i first went to my GP and asked for help. I had been ill for a fairly long time by this point, having already fallen quite deep down the rabbit hole of Depression, Anorexia, Anxiety and OCD.
These were not conditions that had come about suddenly, they had grown up with me, slowly and silently. I had always been an anxious child and i can remember very ritualised behaviour and obsessive compulsive symptoms dating back to the age of 6 but it had always seemed very normal and very manageable to me.
In fact i remember thinking that everyone did the strange rituals i did and thought the way i did, we never talk about it because everyone does it i reasoned to myself.
When i was thirteen it began to manifest more strongly and i started retreating into myself. I had always been quiet and i had just started the “terrible teens” so it was not really noticed, not even by me, that i had started withdrawing from the world.
I had a lot of friends online and they were the ones that eventually managed to convince me to tell people “IRL” (in real life) and that what i was feeling was not normal.
Up to this point i had told almost no one that actually knew me, it was something i kept incredibly close to my chest and that not even family or close friends knew about.
I finally managed to work up the courage to tell my parents. Almost. I left them a note that said i needed to go to the doctor because something wasn’t right. This may seem cowardly but at this point i was literally unable to get the words out of my mouth.
They were shocked and scared, it was completely out of the blue, so good i had got at hiding that anything was wrong.
I wrote a four page letter to my doctor on my computer and printed it out because i was terrified of saying anything and i knew i would sabotage it and end up saying that nothing was really wrong, i had made a mistake.
I honestly did not know what to expect or what would happen after i handed over those pieces of paper. Mental health was not talked about ten years ago. We now have wonderful campaigns like Time to Change and politicians talking about their experiences of mental illness but when i was 14 this just did not happen.
There certainly wasn’t anything about mental health or illness at school. People made jokes about “nutters” and “men in white coats” sure but there was deafening silence from the curriculum.
I was scared that i was going to be sent straight to a psychiatric hospital right there and then on the spot. I was scared i would be medicated up to my eye balls.
Luckily this was not the case!
The doctor i saw was young and very newly qualified. She admitted from the very beginning that she knew very little about mental illness or the conditions i was suffering from and had never had a patient like me but that she would do everything in her power to find out more and help.
She was incredibly kind and compassionate and refused to give me medication, saying instead that i would have a referral to the local CAMHS team for an assessment. I remember how wonderful she was, so non judgemental and what’s more she believed me and what i was going through.
Through the weeks she helped me understand that medically i was not well and i needed help, she helped me talk to my parents and together we learnt more about my illness.
Later on she left her position at my surgery and went elsewhere, however because of the way she had responded to me i felt optimistic about my treatment from this point onwards.
I hear about some people’s first experiences and think back to some of my own later run ins with professionals i feel terrible thinking about it. It is so important that your first time “coming out” as it were about a mental health problem is not a negative one. I know so many people that tried once and it took them years afterwards to try again because their first experience had been so traumatic.
There is still a real gap that needs to be dealt with in terms of good and actual patient experience is and the education of GPs when it comes to mental health, especially in young people.
But i hope that through continuing work by organisations like YoungMinds we can get there. Everyone deserves to be taken seriously and treated with respect.
And if you want to help support mental health education in schools check out my friend Charlotte’s amazing AcSEED project.